1.2 What should I do?

Aristotle also defined human beings as “political animals” since we live together in societies organized around explicit rules and social norms. Here as well we don’t have to simply act on whatever urges we feel most strongly, or even just follow along with what others expect of us, we can stop and think about what to do instead and think about whether it is right to do or not.

Our ability to reflect on our choices and actions introduces a normative dimension to human practical and social life as we come to ask ourselves questions about our own needs, desires and decisions as well as about the rules governing our social lives. We may wonder what we should do in some particular situation, maybe when our impulses lead us in one direction and our experience and reason says otherwise; or when we feel social demands imposed on us that we still feel uncomfortable with. Consider the following famous fictional case.

A difficult case

Imagine that you are standing next to a railway track and notice a runaway trolley coming down the tracks. There are five children further down the track who are too far away to hear you. There is also a switch in front of you, that would divert the trolley to another track. Unfortunately there is also a single worker on this other track, who is himself to far away to hear you.

Would you throw the switch and cause the worker to most likely die in order to prevent the runaway trolley from hitting the children?

This classic case of an ethical dilemma has been extensively studied by philosophers and moral psychologists.3 It presents us with a situation in which we most likely feel torn between two alternatives, neither of which seems to be acceptable or desirable, but in which we also may feel unable to refuse to pick either. Cases like this are good at bringing to the surface the intuitions and assumptions we make about what the right thing to do might be, and that is why they are often studied by philosophers and others interested in looking more closely at moral decision making. One significant result of the study of this case is that a large majority of people say that if they were in that situation they would throw the switch. Many of us feel compelled to follow a common moral idea: all else being equal, do whatever saves the most lives. But then consider the following variation on this case.

Imagine that you are standing on a bridge with a low railing over a railway track and notice a runaway trolley coming down the tracks. There are five children further down the track who are too far away to hear you. There is also a very large person standing next to you, and if you gave him a slight push he would fall in front of the trolley car causing it to derail, thus saving the five children.

Would you push the person off of the bridge in order to prevent the runaway trolley from hitting the children?

In this case a large majority of people say they would not push the person off of the bridge even if it would save the five children. Given that the result is the same in either case, the question then becomes why it is that in the this version of this scenario we no longer look at it in terms of gut feeling that it is better to do what leads to more lives being saved.

Whatever the explanation for this discrepancy may be (and there is an entire academic industry that has developed around research into the trolley dilemma) the important point here is that philosophers are interested in both examining cases like this directly and in studying how it is that we all tend to respond. Cases like this help us to see and hence to start examining the deeper assumptions we rely on in our thinking about right and wrong. In general this is what philosophy as a discipline is all about – exposing to view and carefully examining the assumptions we make about how the world works, what we can know about it, and what matters. This is exactly what Socrates meant by leading “an examined life.” He insisted that if we never bothered to reflect on our own deepest assumptions about reality, knowledge and values we would be missing out on what may truly make life worth living. You may disagree with him that this kind of examination is something that we should all devote our entire lives to as he did, but he does have a point worth considering. If we never take the time to deeply reflect on our assumptions, are really ever living our own lives?


  1. Originally developed by Judith Jarvis Thompson 50 years ago, this problem has lately seen practical application in the development of self-driving cars., Lauren Cassani Davis, “Would You Pull the Trolley Switch? Does It Matter?” The Atlantic, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/trolley-problem-history-psychology-morality-driverless-cars/409732/↩︎